Avrohom Ovinu’s statement that he is “like dust and ashes” (Bereishis 18:27) is much misunderstood. People often understand that just as dust and ashes are virtually valueless, so Avrohom Ovinu is saying that he regards himself also as having no value. This understanding is not only contradicted by Rashi’s explanation of the posuk but is wrong and dangerous. Rashi says that Avrohom Ovinu meant that if not for Hashem’s help he would have died and become like dust during the war with the four kings and the five kings and he would have become ashes in the furnace of fire into which he was thrown by Nimrod. Far from expressing his low estimate of himself, the words reflect Avrohom Ovinu’s total emuna that we can do nothing without Hashem. This is true humility as we explained in connection with Noach.
To suggest that Avrohom Ovinu would consider himself worthless is preposterous. Imagining that the Torah expects us to consider ourselves worthless is a mistake which could lead to yi’ush and depression. As Nefesh Hachaim explains at length, every mitzvah we do, every pure thought, has a tremendous effect in the higher worlds, which is in turn reflected in brochos which descend later to our world. Naturally, Gedolim and tzaddikim have the greatest effect but we can all contribute in our own way. We have all heard the stories of apparently simple people changing a Heavenly decree through some act of exceptional righteousness.
We can all play a major role in protecting Klal Yisroel from our many enemies as can be learnt from a section of Agadah in Kiddushin (29b). Abaya had a problem with a certain mazik (demon) which was causing harm in his Yeshiva. He heard that the tzaddik Reb Acha bar Yaakov was coming to learn in the yeshiva. Abaya hoped that Reb Acha would destroy the mazik. He engineered that Reb Acha would sleep in the Beis Hamedrash on the first night knowing that the mazik would be sure to try to damage him. The commentators say that Abaya knew that Reb Acha because of his righteousness, would come to no harm. Indeed the mazik, appearing in the form of a snake with seven heads, did try to harm Reb Acha. However every time Reb Acha bowed down in tefilla, one of the heads of the “snake” was destroyed. After his seventh kriah, (bow) the mazik was completely destroyed. Rav Elyashiv in his He’oros on Kiddushin brings from the Shita Mekubetzes that the seven krios were the two at the beginning of the Shmoneh Esrei when we say Boruch Atoh, the two at the beginning and end of Modim and the three times we bow as we say Oseh sholom bimromov…at the end Shemoneh Esrei.
Why was one head of the mazik destroyed every time Reb Acha bowed down? It seems that this is the explanation: bowing down is a way of saying that we cannot stand up without You. You provide us with everything. Nothing else has power. Our enemies have power only if we ascribe power to them. In short, this is the famous concept of ein od milvado (There is nothing without Him.) If we genuinely believe ein od milvado, our enemies automatically lose their strength. Therefore each time Reb Acha bowed down expressing his emuna in ein od milvado, a head of the mazik was destroyed.
This understanding should revolutionise our Shemone Esrei. We have the power to neutralize our enemies as we bow down in Shemone Esrei through the correct kavana that nothing has any power besides Hashem. We may not be on the madreiga of Reb Acha bar Yaakov. Our belief in ein od milvado may not go as deep as it did with the Brisker Rovzt”l who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe, even walking past Nazi soldiers, as he concentrated intensely on ein od milvado. But each of us can achieve something. And together we can do much to protect Klal Yisroel from our enemies. If we are not on the level to destroy our enemies, we can weaken them, so that they will not always succeed in their plans against us. Even at the end of Shemoneh Esrei, when we tend to be mentally into chazoras hashatz or even outside the shul, we have still a major avoda ahead of us; three more krios with which can weaken our enemies and perhaps save Jewish lives. This is not a time to dilute our kavono but rather to bring it to new heights which could save ourselves and others from danger.
Bearing in mind that nothing besides Hashem has any power, we can have greater kavana throughout Shemone Esre. “Only You, Hashem, can maintain our mental health. Only You, Hashem, can redeem us from our tzoros. Only You, Hashem, can give us good health and parnasa. Shema Koleinu, Listen to us, Hashem, because only You can help us.” Our Shemone Esre should never be the same again.
Rabbi Fletcher is the mechaber of Do You Know Hilchos Brachos? Do You Know Hilchos Shabbos, From Strength to Strength, Dancing in our Hearts and The Hidden Light.